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The Dynamic City: Futures for the Past

In April 2016, the Boston University (BU) Initiative on Cities—in partnership with Historic New England and the BU American and New England Studies Program—convened preservationists, academics, design professionals, developers, and public officials to consider, in this 50th year of the National Historic Preservation Act, a preservation for the 21st century. The conference, entitled “The Dynamic City: Futures for the Past,” was anchored in the discipline of historic preservation, but its panelists and participants from diverse backgrounds grew the conversation to something greater.

Panel topics included: Gateway and postindustrial Massachusetts cities; urban housing; sustainability and resiliency; civic and public spaces; commercial revitalization; and commodification of heritage. Additional keynotes and roundtables included insightful commentary from mayors representing cities across the nation and across the pond.

Over two days, several themes emerged: urban renewal; available and affordable housing; regional planning; and—as anticipated by the conference subtitle—the challenges and opportunities of honoring and celebrating the past while serving the real and pressing needs of present-day populations.

Not surprisingly, the discussions generated more questions than answers—including the perhaps obvious but never explicitly answered question posed by Albert Rex of MacRostie Historic Advisors: How do we define a dynamic city? Because the nature of the city is ever changing, and because preservation is a generalist field that also values the specific, it is difficult to offer one-size-fits-all answers or prescribe a concrete course of action.

Still, with some resolve, conference leaders implicitly charged the community to examine historic preservation—both its philosophies and its practice—carefully and thoughtfully as it moves into the next 50 years. The Dynamic City drew closer to an articulation of preservation that has been desired for quite some time: one that is more proactive than reactive; one that is incremental and allows for adjustment; one that embraces constituents and collaborators diverse in their geographies, demographics, and professions. The 21st century seeks a more critical, comprehensive, and creative preservation.